Inception Totems Explanation

Inception Totem Explanation - Title

First and foremost, this is a spoiler ridden blog post. Beginning to end. If you haven’t seen the movie, you have wandered directly into the deep end of the pool without first getting your floaties off. If you would like to watch it – I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is definitely worth owning.  The extras are solid gold, the HD is completely off the hook and you also get a digital copy as well.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spun this disc while trying to answer questions that have come up on this blog.

Also, this blog specifically discusses Inception’s Totems only… if you want to discuss the movie itself, there is quite the conversation going on over here.  So let us away on our Inception Totems Explanation!!

Inception Totem Explanation - Cobb's Top

Cobb’s Totem – The Top

Early on in the movie Cobb asked to see Ariadne’s new totem and after demuring stated that she thought it an elegent solution for keeping track of reality. It was then that we learn that the entire idea of the totem was actually Mal’s.

Mal came up with the idea out of necessity to help differentiate between the dream world and the real world.  To that end, there were several rules to be observed with the totems – never let someone else handle your totem so as to keep them from controlling your perspective of reality by duplicating your totem perfectly.  The totem was also to be something small and intimate to you for reasons of portability.

Cobb’s totem is the top.  Basically as he describes it, it works fairly simply.  If the top stops spinning he is not in a dream.  If it continues spinning, he is dreaming.  Easy enough.  NEXT!

Inception Totem Explanation - Arthur's Dice

Arthur’s Totem – The Dice

Arthur – Ariadne’s guide through her beginning dream training – shows Ariadne his totem after she asks about them.  “Loaded Dice” he explains.  In reality they will come up as I expect them to.  In the world of dreams they will come up as anything but.  Arthur then explains that Cobb’s totem isn’t his at all, but Mal’s.  Mal is the one that came up with the device and after she died Cobb took them as his own.

Inception Totem Explanation - Ariadne's Bishop

Ariadne’s Totem – The Bishop

Soon before the Inception reverse-heist begins we see Ariadne milling something.  A golden Bishop.  Cobb takes an interest to the totem and asks if he can see it.  Ariadne demures and Cobb is impressed she is learning so well.  Never let another person handle your totem.  It is your only way to be sure no one has tampered with your perception and grasp on reality.  And with that little lesson tucked away we never see Ariadne’s totem again.

Inception Totem Explanation - Eames' Poker Chips

Eames’ Totem – The Poker Chips

Our first encounter with Eames is at the Poker Table.  Cobb greets him with a hearty, “You won’t make them breed no matter how hard you rub them together”.  This is obviously a bit of a stretch, but it would make sense that Eames’ totem are his poker chips.  I’ve even heard it conjectured that in Dream World one poker chip will turn into two and back to one again.  Seems a bit of a stretch, but it is a dream, why not?  And now that brings us the most important totem of them all:

Inception Totem Explanation - Mal's Top

Mal’s Totem – The Top

Not fair!  I hear you crying.  You already did that one.  But, wait dear friends… no other totem is more important than this one.  This is the totem that began them all.  Mal is the creator of the idea of the totem.  She has need of a device that will keep her faltering belief in reality in check.  And so she devises a simple mechanism to inform her of her whereabouts.  A top.

A top that she cast aside when all her preparations for the final kick have been put in place and are ready.   The three psychologist’s signed witness statements a testing to her sanity are ready and waiting.  She’s pinned the blame squarely on Cobb for her murder by informing her lawyer of the threats he’s made against her.  All in order to get Cobb to jump with her and to head up to their children that are there and waiting for them to awaken.

As a recent Wired article so eloquently stated, all great literature is left open to the reader.  Similarly, all great movies are left open to the viewer.  Mr. Nolan has brilliantly weighted the evidence for and against the dream world conclusion so perfectly neither faction will ultimately know the answer.  But the evidence definitely is pointedly in favor of the dream world solution and here is why.

The totem is lying to Cobb

It tells him what he wants to hear.  It is his dream after all.  Everything else is controlled in this movie by Cobb’s psyche.  Even in other people’s dreams it is Cobb that dominates the dream with his head space and his perspective.  Runaway train in Level Two (more about the levels) – Layer one of the inception attempt?  All Cobb.  Ariadne sabotaging the inception attempt and basically dragging Cobb further down into the mire of dream layers?  All Cobb.  Limbo dream world?  Obviously all Cobb.  These dreams reek of our protagonist’s mental instability.  It seems odd we would think anything other than at least one more layer of dreams summoned by Cobb and controlled primarily by him.

And as others have noted elsewhere more eloquently than I ever could… why would you believe that a totem would work in the first place?  In a dream either your mind tells the top to continue spinning or your mind tells the top to stop spinning.  Its as simple as that.

I do believe that Nolan has conjured a very eloquent and tactile solution to the problem.  The interwebs are a buzz with discussions about what your totem would be.  (For the record, mine would be a modified heavier British Pound or a Poker Chip like Eames’.  Have you felt the brilliant heft of a nice clay poker chip – or a pound sterling?  Enough said.)  And well they should.  It is instantly recognizable and personal for every viewer of the movie.  But outside of a clever prop, I don’t believe that the totems work a lick.  Sad, but true.

The entirety of this movie is a dream.  A dream within a dream within a dream (seven total, at least).  And while that may tend to make most American viewers upset, I believe Nolan has stayed true to his artistic vision basically because, whether the epiphany is a dream or not – its still just as overwhelming and important as if it weren’t.  Having a cathartic awakening with your father as Fischer Junior did at Senior’s death bed?  Awe inspiringly real.  The rapturous feelings Cobb felt while waiting on the train track with his beloved – headed somewhere, though they don’t know where – enrapturing.  The walks shared in Limbo?  Precious.  That chats while building their childhood homes?  Treasured.  Cobb even says so much in answer to Ariadne, even if misguided.  “Why is it so important to Dream?”  Cobb replies, “Because in my dreams we are together.”

And ultimately Nolan’s metaphor of the dream is basically a thinly veiled allusion to the movie screen – to this huge techno-color canvass.  The movie is where we collectively share a common dream.  Where we shut down our logic cortex’s and visually succumb to the picture painted before us all.  And for that I tip my hat to Nolan for sharing his dream with us and causing us all to partake in this grand vision of collective catharsis.  Because I don’t know about you, but I was not right for several days after watching this movie.  My center of balance was thrown off and my perspective on reality was dumped upside down.  It was a great feat Mr. Nolan accomplished here and I am a better person for it.  Looking forward to the pleasant arguments below!  And remember that this post will make more sense if you read the Top 10 Inception Questions and the post that started it all, the 7 Dream Layers of Inception.